Is Alice in Wonderland really about drugs?
Published: 20th Aug 2012 09:40:39
Alice in Wonderland fans have been marking the 150th anniversary of the fateful boat trip that saw the genesis of the children's tale. But why do so many see adult themes in the story, asks Sophie Robehmed.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is, on one level at least, the story of a girl who disappears down a rabbit hole to a fantastic place full of bizarre adventures.
Charles Dodgson, a mathematician at Christ Church, Oxford, first told his surreal story to the daughters of dean Henry Liddell as they rowed down the Thames.
After the boating trip, 10-year-old Alice Liddell badgered Dodgson to write it down and Alice in Wonderland - under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll - was born. The heroine follows a talking white rabbit, meets the Queen of Hearts and plays croquet using flamingos as mallets.
Since the 1960s there has been a trend for readers to identify an underlying drug theme in the book.
The Cheshire Cat disappears leaving only the enigmatic grin behind. Alice drinks potions and eats pieces of mushroom to change her physical state. The caterpillar smokes an elaborate water pipe. The whole atmosphere of the story is so profoundly disjointed from reality - surely drugs must have had an influence? After all this was the era of legal opium use.
Jefferson Airplane's 1967 psychedelic anthem White Rabbit runs with the drug theme.
"When the men on the chessboard get up / And tell you where to go / And you've just had some kind of mushroom / And your mind is moving low / Go ask Alice, I think she'll know."
The Matrix provides a film reference point. "You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
The drug link is a homespun thing. You'll find it on a host of random forums.
But the experts are usually sceptical. Carroll wasn't thought to have been a recreational user of opium or laudanum, and the references may say more about the people making them than the author.
"The notion that the surreal aspects of the text are the consequence of drug-fuelled dreams resonates with a culture, particularly perhaps in the 60s, 70s and 80s when LSD was widely-circulated and even now where recreational drugs are commonplace," says Dr Heather Worthington, Children's Literature lecturer at Cardiff University.
"It is the deviant aspects that continue to fascinate because the text is unusual, innovative, and hard to grasp so turning to the author offers simplicity and excitement simultaneously."
The mushroom is "magic" only in the context of the story. And the caterpillar is merely smoking tobacco through a hookah.
The shadow hanging over anyone reading the story is the issue of Carroll's sexuality. A successful photographer, many of his surviving shots are of children, often semi-dressed or naked.
To many modern minds, a man who regularly formed friendships with young girls is inherently suspicious.
"Lewis Carroll's personal life intrigues adult readers because Alice in Wonderland is a text for children but the notion that the author photographed, however innocently, young girls in a state of undress is, to our modern eyes, unpalatable," says Worthington.
"That Alice was based on a child that Carroll knew adds yet another layer of interest, or suspicion, depending on how you look at it."
But Carroll was living at a time when childhood innocence was being forged, influencing how children were represented in 19th Century literature aimed at them.
Carroll's interest in young female innocence is explained by some of the experts as one that invoked desire, but not necessarily sexual.
Jenny Woolf, author of The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, agrees with this theory.
"Girls offered him a non-judgemental and non-sexual female audience and he opened up to them. They loved him and he found it a relief to be with them.
"Although he was attracted to women, celibacy was a condition of Carroll's job [a condition imposed on certain Oxford academics at the time] and he believed that having sex was against God's wishes for him."
There are plenty of experts who find his interests harder to explain and it is inevitable that this knowledge will inform what readers take from the story.
Consult any set of notes on the book and you'll see a slew of themes picked out: puberty, abandonment, the challenge of transition to adulthood, even the perils of authoritarian justice in the form of the Queen of Hearts.
But bearing in mind the nature of the birth of the piece, an off-the-cuff attempt to amuse a child in a rowboat, are people guilty of reading too much into it?
Carroll's Jabberwocky is one of the great nonsense poems in English, scattered with so-called "nonce" words - coined for one occasion only:
In a recent issue of Prospect magazine, Richard Jenkyns, professor of the classical tradition at Oxford University, called Alice in Wonderland "probably the most purely child-centred book ever written" and said that its only purpose "is to give pleasure".
Yet another narrative imposed on the book is the idea of grappling with a sense of self. Carroll led a very controlled existence, struggling with self-identity, a recurring theme in the book as Alice regularly expresses uncertainty about who she is after she enters Wonderland.
"Perhaps that's why his book refers to 'morality' in jeering terms," suggests Woolf. "And the action takes place either underground or in a world which is the opposite of our own."
We can't ever truly know what Carroll intended or if he meant to write anything beyond an enchanting children's story.
Based on his own experience as an illustrator for the 1988 edition of Alice in Wonderland, Anthony Browne believes Carroll might not have been aware of the meanings found within his story.
"People interpret books in a logical way as they do dreams. They want it to have meaning. Alice in Wonderland is not to be read as a logical book. There could be some hidden meanings in there, especially considering Carroll was a mathematician during his lifetime, whether he was aware of such meanings subconsciously or not."
Ultimately, perhaps it's more enjoyable for the full intentions of the author to remain unknown during the reading of the book.
"In a way, it doesn't matter," says Browne. "I don't think Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland to be interpreted. He wrote it to entertain."
At 21:55:16 in EnglandPlans for new flats close to a music venue in Bristol have been given the go-ahead.
At 21:48:53 in HeadlinesA 23-year-old man has been bailed after being arrested on suspicion of raising money for terrorism in Syria.
At 21:41:31 in SportEngland's Louisa Porogovska and Alex Gladkov of Scotland added to the home medal tally as both won wrestling bronze in the Commonwealth Games.
At 21:40:40 in EnglandThe future of a Nottingham-based studio where the Homefront games are made is in doubt after the rights to the title were sold.
At 21:40:17 in SportIf you are a fan of Irish music, then get yourself over to Glasgow's Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre for Saturday's Commonwealth Games boxing finals. Although, I should warn you, it might get a bit repetitive.
At 21:39:35 in SportIf you don't become a bad side overnight, how long does it take?
At 21:34:17 in WorldUS Attorney General Eric Holder has urged federal law enforcement agencies to equip some of their officers with the heroin overdose antidote naloxone.
At 21:17:34 in SportNigeria's Blessing Okagbare completed a Glasgow 2014 sprint double by winning the women's 200m ahead of English duo Jodie Williams and Bianca Williams.
At 21:15:36 in SportWelsh weightlifter Darius Jokarzadeh missed out on a medal when he finished fourth in the +105kg class in Glasgow.
At 21:09:46 in BusinessElectric carmaker Tesla is to team up with Japanese electronics firm Panasonic to build a "gigafactory" battery manufacturing plant in the US.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Is Alice in Wonderland really about drugs? [Online] (Updated 20th Aug 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1447120/Is-Alice-in-Wonderland-really-about-drugs [Accessed 31st Jul 2014]
News In Other Categories
The head of the World Health Organization and leaders of West African nations affected by the Ebola outbreak are to announce a joint $100m (£59m; 75m euro) response plan.
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
The Metropolitan Opera in New York says it hopes last minute negotiations with unions will avoid a staff lockout.
England's Louisa Porogovska and Alex Gladkov of Scotland added to the home medal tally as both won wrestling bronze in the Commonwealth Games.
Plans for new flats close to a music venue in Bristol have been given the go-ahead.
Plans have been unveiled for five more local TV stations in Scotland.